By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER -- Representatives of local health, education and service agencies met Tuesday morning to plan for a community forum on mental health in October.
The goal was to assemble several focus groups to foster logistics of the meeting, as well as to prepare questions for participants.
Joe Shtulman, president of the United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley, said the decision to hold a community forum came after Vice President Joe Biden last December created a task force and national dialogue on mental health following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The local United Way is leading the discussion along with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Winchester. A variety of other organizations were represented at the planning meeting, including Valley Health, Healthy Families, Lord Fairifax Community College, Grafton and the Winchester Community Mental Health Center.
Shtulman made one thing clear about the forum in October -- he wants to "hear from everyday people."
"The meeting in October is not a time or place to solve any problems," he said. "This will be a chance to hear from the people who are going through the system and taking care of someone with a mental illness. It will be a time for ideas and sharing of experiences."
After the community forum, it is Shtulman's hope that there will be a number of clear action steps that can be taken to improve resources and support for those impacted by mental illness. He said the focus should be on prevention, not reaction.
Steve Tickner, vice president of NAMI Winchester, explained that a primary problem is the stigma and discrimination that follows the mental health community of today. He said people are fearful of those with mental disorders, although it impacts more individuals than ever.
Mental illness impact one in every four, or close to 60 million, Americans each year.
"This is a disease, and it doesn't discriminate," he said. "It's not something that can simply be overcome by someone's will power. It's time to take the barriers down."
Tickner asked how "mental illness" might become a household phrase -- something that people aren't afraid to talk about -- like cancer is now.
"When I was a young boy, you didn't say the word cancer or connect anyone's name with it," he said. "That was a word that sent someone screaming."
Tickner also suggested that daily language maintains the negative stigma that accompanies mental illness. For instance, he said he often hears someone jokingly refer to someone else as bi-polar, yet never hears someone call another individual "cancer."
Jim Gaynor, CEO of Grafton Integrated Health Network, said the group needed to be careful about trying to "reinvent the wheel."
"When Columbine happened, we had the same meetings and discussions, trying to figure out how we could keep this from happening again," he said. "But here we are. It's like Groundhog's Day."
He and others said they hope to hear from people who wouldn't normally associate themselves with mental illness, or maybe are new to the "crisis mode" that comes with it.
October's forum will split participants up into groups of eight to 10 people. Each group will have one to two facilitators - one to ask questions and keep the conversation on track, and another to take notes. Leaders are hoping for at least 80 individuals.
When trying to think of questions, Shtulman asked that they be open-ended ones, which would allow for the sharing of stories and experiences. He said the conversations should be personal and specific to the community.
A number of ideas were tossed around, including asking about a person's knowledge of local resources, how mental illness has impacted their lives and where they think things could be improved upon.
Dave Stegmaier, director of community relations for U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, suggested a question and explained why the community dialogue was so important to him.
While he was there to represent Wolf, Stegmaier said he also represented the role of caregiver to someone with mental illness. He said his youngest sister has been schizophrenic for decades. He suggested that participants be asked what services and support would be available to them "in an ideal world."
Stegmaier said he was happy to hear that the focus was on getting answers from everyone in the community.
"I think it is great to stop and take a look at what each of us can contribute," he said. "The result should be an action plan that includes all of us."
The community forum is set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Lord Fairfax Community College Corron Center in Middletown. To find out how to help, contact the United Way NSV at 540-536-1610 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or email@example.com